Buckeyes Battle Fatigue, Top Seed in the Big Ten Tournament and Conference Player of the Year in Steep Semifinal Test Against Purdue

By Griffin Strom on March 10, 2023 at 9:27 pm
Zach Edey, Felix Okpara
Joseph Maiorana – USA TODAY Sports

There’s a reason no 13th seed has ever made it this far in the Big Ten Tournament.

Beyond, you know, the talent and skill gap suggested by the lower seeding. 

#1 Purdue (27-5) United Center 1 p.m. CBS

When Ohio State takes on Purdue at 1 p.m. Saturday at the United Center in Chicago, the Buckeyes will play their fourth game in as many days. Ohio State won a down-to-the-wire affair on Wednesday to start its three-game win streak in the very first game of the tournament. The Buckeyes won another tight one against Iowa on Thursday, and didn’t exactly cruise all the way through the second half in Friday’s 10-point win over Michigan State.

The Boilermakers, on the other hand, will only be playing their second contest. Purdue had a full four days between its regular-season finale and its opening game in the Big Ten Tournament, where it beat Rutgers by five points on Friday.

Make no mistake: As the No. 1 seed in the tournament and a team that’s already beaten the Buckeyes twice in 2022-23, Purdue is a steep mountain to climb regardless. But on less than 24 hours’ notice after a three-game grind in consecutive days, the challenge is all the more daunting for the scarlet and gray.

“No one said it was going to be easy trying to make this run. My guys, I have full confidence in them. We all have full confidence in each other.”– Justice Sueing

Given the momentum they’ve gathered this week, though, it may not be a bad thing.

“(The physical demand) was very difficult. As soon as I leave here, I'm getting an ice bath right away,” Bruce Thornton said after Ohio State’s 68-58 win over Michigan State on Friday. “It's hard, but at the end of the day, I want to win so bad. I want to just prove people wrong. I want to show everybody what this team is really made of. We went through a big slump, but we keep fighting. We keep showing people that we belong. We belong here. I see these guys put in so much work, the coaching staff and just the fans, man. I just feel like we're going to keep working, keep surprising people if we keep playing like this.”

Ohio State could be without its leading scorer for the second straight game on Saturday. Brice Sensabaugh was the first Buckeye to fall victim to the rigorous demands of the conference tournament schedule when he left Thursday’s game with an apparent knee issue. Considering Sensabaugh missed his junior season of high school basketball with a meniscus injury, Ohio State held him out of Friday’s matchup.

The third-team All-Big Ten selection was scheduled to undergo an MRI on Friday evening to get further clarification about the severity of the injury. While Holtmann said Sensabaugh “really wanted to play,” Holtmann also made it clear that Sensabaugh’s long-term health is a higher priority. The Buckeyes were fine without him on Friday, but that doesn’t mean they won’t need a 16.3-point-per-game scorer against a top-five team in the country.

But Justice Sueing, who – like Thornton – has taken his game up another notch during a string of five wins in six games for Ohio State, said the Buckeyes knew what they were getting themselves into when they came into the tournament as the No. 13 seed.

After what he’s seen so far, his confidence in the team is only growing.

“No one said it was going to be easy trying to make this run,” Sueing said. “My guys, I have full confidence in them. We all have full confidence in each other. Like Bruce said, we're trying to prove that we need to be there, and I think we've done that as a team collectively and really just paid attention to our mentality coming into each and every game.”

On paper, Purdue presents one of the toughest matchups for Ohio State in the entire conference. The Buckeyes managed to stay within two points of the Boilermakers by the end of the first matchup at the Schottenstein Center on Jan. 5, but Big Ten Player of the Year Zach Edey dropped 26 points on Ohio State in a 27-point demolition in the rematch.

Without Zed Key (shoulder), freshman Felix Okpara is the only OSU center that can contend with Edey down low. At 6-foot-11 and 220 pounds, the first-year Buckeye is still giving up a whopping five inches and 85 pounds to the prolific Purdue big man.

Purdue wouldn’t be the first team Ohio State has exacted vengeance upon of late, though. After losing 14 out of 15 games in January and February, the Buckeyes have avenged regular-season losses in five of their past six games. And Ohio State actually cites the first half of the second Purdue game, the first in which Chris Holtmann started all four of his top freshmen, as the turning point for the season.

“Like I said, over the past couple of weeks, like over the month-and-a-half, we've been playing our best basketball,” Sueing said. “Even though the results haven't shown necessarily, we've been able to grow with the good and the bad. I think it just shows the amount of growth, the amount of progression we've made as a team to kind of stay in knowing we have more than what we need to get the job done no matter what the other team is going through.”

Ohio State is only two wins away from a spot in the NCAA Tournament, even after entering the postseason five games below .500. The Buckeyes are aware of that fact, although they’re not counting their eggs before they hatch.

Ohio State must still overcome significant physical fatigue and knock off the best team in the Big Ten just to have the chance to play for the conference tournament crown. But if pulling that off would be a shock, what would you call the effort the Buckeyes have shown just to get here?

“Right now we're focused on this next one. We're going to go get some rest, get some recovery in, some treatment, and head into our film and get ready for the next one tomorrow at noon,” Sueing said. “We knew we were capable this entire year. We had our struggles, like every team has, but ours is a little bit more. These are guys I'm running with, man, so I'm excited for the noon tip-off tomorrow. Yeah, I think we're going to be ready for this.”

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